GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- When Cuban doctors from Miami came to help 30,000 Cuban rafters held at Guantánamo, they found a hellish tent camp where people cut and burned themselves in the hope of being evacuated to hospitals on the U.S. mainland.
The doctors cringed when they saw kids with rotten teeth because of the sugar-heavy diet in Cuba, a product of the nation’s deep poverty. They saw a boy who’d had part of a lung surgically removed because Cuban doctors lacked antibiotics to treat his simple case of pneumonia.
Twenty years after the doctors from the Miami Medical Team (MMT) volunteered to treat Cuban and Haitian migrants at this U.S. military enclave on Cuba’s southeastern coast, members of the nonprofit group returned Friday to commemorate their work.
“We are very glad to be back in the only free territory of Cuba,” said MMT President Manuel Alzugaray, his voice cracking during a ceremony at the main base chapel, not far from the prisons where almost 150 captives from the war on terror are held.
The two dozen doctors made a beeline for a small shrine to Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, several of them softly stroking the protective glass and then joining in a group prayer for freedom for the communist-ruled island.
When the volunteers arrived in the summer of 1994, 15,000 Haitian and 1,500 Cuban migrants detained in a U.S. interdiction operation called Sea Signal were already here. That would swell to 45,000 at a base that usually holds 5,000 to 6,000 people.
Fidel Castro, reeling from the collapse of Soviet subsidies and angry that Washington was welcoming Cuban rafters, announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba by sea could do so. About 35,000 did. President Bill Clinton vowed he would not accept them, and ordered that most be brought to this base until he could decide what to do with them.
Alzugaray said the U.S. State Department requested the MMT’s help because of its experience assisting anti-Marxist rebels in Nicaragua and Angola. Guarione Diaz, then head of a Miami social-work agency, was named liaison between the refugees and the base military — “the mayor of Guantánamo,” as one news report put it.
The first wave of Cuban and Haitian migrants to arrive were crowded amid forbidding summer heat and dust — the Guantánamo area is arid — into olive-green tent camps ringed by barbed-wire fences that looked and felt more like open-air prisons.
Miami psychiatrist Rigoberto Rodríguez, 61, said he saw a lot of cases of depression “because of the drama in the high seas.” Academics have estimated that up to one in four rafters who started the mad dash to freedom known as the Rafter Crisis made it to safety.
Many of the refugees were teenagers who had left behind their families in Cuba, and none knew at first whether they would be allowed to enter the United States, forced back to Cuba or be sent to a third country.
Surgeon Alexis Abril, 70, recalled a woman with a breast cancer so advanced that her skin was tearing. She claimed she was denied treatment in Cuba because she was a dissident. Because the woman’s condition was considered a medical emergency, she was evacuated to a U.S. hospital.
Dentist Enrique Cepero said he was shocked to treat children aged 6 and 7 whose teeth had rotted because sugared water had been their only breakfast as Cuba plunged into a post-Soviet depression that saw hunger and shortages of all kinds hit the island.
Internist Jorge Beato, 65, said he particularly recalled one child, about 6 years old, who had suffered in Cuba with pneumonia, usually treatable with antibiotics. Cuban surgeons cut off part of his lung, apparently because they did not have the antibiotics.
The possibility of medical evacuations sparked a rash of fake ailments and injuries. “One case of epilepsy got parole, and then we had an epidemic of epileptic attacks,” said Beato. “On one day alone I saw 27 so-called epileptic attacks.”
After one refugee was accidentally burned and evacuated, several others burned themselves, he added. One poured Tabasco sauce into his eye. Another swallowed nails; a third cut himself and swallowed his blood so it would show up in his feces.
“I told them, don’t start inventing things” because the U.S military — uniformly praised by the MMT members — could get angry and stop the medical paroles, Beato added. “But the desperation was so great, they did anything to get out of that hell.”
The MMT volunteers initially treated the Haitian migrants to avert complaints of preferential treatment for the Cubans. But as the Haitians were sent back to Haiti and more Cubans arrived, the MMT’s caseload and sense of urgency shifted.
First, they urged the White House to allow in the 7,000 to 8,000 Cuban children and their families from the camps. Clinton agreed, and they were gone by December 1994. Several MMT members bitterly recalled then-Attorney General Janet Reno saying the Cubans would “never” be allowed into the United States.
As time went by, life in the camps grew better, less crowded, more organized.
MMT organized the medical professionals among the refugees into triage teams that could treat some cases and pass others to the U.S. military’s own physicians. And the camps elected their own liaisons with the military.
“That self-government was a mini-democracy that showed me a future Cuba will be able to move forward,” Beato said.
Artists painted images reflecting the dangers of the sea and the sadness of life in the camps, and made sculptures out of the melted plastic wrappers of Meals Ready to Eat, the military food rations.
“Their inventiveness with art materials was incredible,” said Cuba-born Nuzio Mainieri, now 87, a plastic surgeon and sculptor who hosted two refugee artists in his Coral Gables studio after they reached the United States. He did not make the trip Friday.
Violinist Lisbet Martinez, then 12, gave several performances that featured The Star-Spangled Banner. Guarioné Díaz recalled that the rice got a lot better after he persuaded the U.S. military to let the Cubans cook it.
Music groups were born, and a tent was set aide for entertainment. One participant in the MMT trip said there were even rumors of “massage” services available in the camps.
Alzugaray said refugees also denounced other camp-dwellers as Cuban spies. Cubans with criminal records or those suspected of being infiltrators or mentally unstable were sent to a detention center called Camp X-Ray. About 500 were eventually sent home.
The MMT doctors also recalled their emotion at seeing Cuba as their charter planes approached the Guantánamo base and when they set foot on their home soil for the first time after decades in exile.
“Guantanamo is dry and can look more like Arizona, but the color of the ocean was unmistakably Cuban blue,” said Cepero, who spent 14 years in a Cuban prison before he left in 1975 and re-certified his dentistry degree in the United States.
Cepero and Mainieri said they actually liked seeing again the ugly rodents endemic to Cuba known as banana rats or jutias. Cepero said he still has a bit of the barbed wire that he clipped from a camp fence.
By the time the last Cuban migrant had left the base on Jan. 31, 1996 — virtually all for the United States — 110 MMT medical personnel had paid their own way for about 50 Thursday-through-Sunday trips to the base, treating 600 to 800 patients per weekend.
Today, there is no sign that this base once throbbed with 30,000 Cubans, 15,000 Haitians and thousands more military personnel and third-country civilians hired by the Pentagon to help with the refugees.
The tents were folded, the cots were stacked up, and the plan was to put them aboard cargo ships for the next refugee crisis.
But there is still evidence of desperate Cubans trying to escape the island and reach safe haven at the U.S. Navy’s base.
Just last week, a Cuban man carefully walked his way through one of the Cuban minefields that ring the base, then jumped over a chain-link-and-barbed-wire fence to the U.S. base and asked for political asylum, according to U.S. personnel.
Another tried it 3 ½ weeks ago, the personnel said, asking for discretion because they were not authorized to comment. There was some gunfire from the Cuban side, then a mine exploded. The Cuban was killed.